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‘Nigeria has no reason being an import-dependent economy’

By Femi Adekoya
13 July 2022   |   3:35 am
I always believe in making the best out of a bad situation. There are economic challenges all over the world, but people will still navigate and get things done properly.

Bimbo Ashiru

Former Commissioner for Commerce in Ogun State, Bimbo Ashiru was recently appointed as the Chairman of Odu’a Group. In this interview with FEMI ADEKOYA, he talks about the Group and efforts to revamp the conglomerate to profitability for its shareholders in the six South-Western states.

Give us an overview of the economy and how you are going to navigate through the challenges to give shareholders better returns?
I always believe in making the best out of a bad situation. There are economic challenges all over the world, but people will still navigate and get things done properly. I will give you a good example which is COVID-19. The COVID-19 epidemic, look at what happened and look at how people became billionaires. So, what I am saying is that Odu’a was once a conglomerate that was actually competing with the likes of the UAC of this world, but what happened? It was bad management at the end of the day. The founders of Odu’a had a vision and mission and they were probably in their 30s and their 40s. The likes of Chief Obafemi Awolowo. They built the Cocoa house, which was the tallest building in Africa, the first television station and the University of Ife were built through the funds raised from cocoa. What I am trying to say is that economic challenges will not make us die.

Just like if there is fire here today, we must look for a way of getting out of this place. So that is my own vision and my own point is that I do not think anything is difficult. It is just making the best out of it. Despite the challenges, we made about 150 per cent progress and do not forget that all of us came in on the 7th of May 2020. I was part of it and I commend the Governors for picking people, the right caliber of people, people with pedigree, and an unblemished track record. We have people that have worked in different industries. I was in banking for almost 30 years before I went to serve as a commissioner in Ogun State for eight years and the records are there. My records were there in the banking industry. Dr. Aina was a banker and he left as a Managing Director, while I left as a Director in the bank. So, we have things we were doing.

The point is that we have been able to achieve three things. I mean what our forefathers were unable to do. We were able to get oil license and the marginal fields and we paid for it fully. We have 42.86 per cent and it is called Beta marginal field and by God’s grace, we have started seeing people who are willing to partner with us as technical partners and from what we have seen, Chevron was on that plate, we should be able to do a minimum of between 4000 and 5000 barrels per day and there is gas there too. It is in Ondo and I mentioned it to the Governor that we would need his help so that when we start working there, people do not come there to disturb us. For our hospitality business, I have good news for you. Premier Hotel is as good as sorted out. We are doing a joint venture with a company which I don’t want to name now. We are having the final meetings today and we are going to sign off.

They are spending over N10 billion to turn Premier hotel to another five-star hotel and that is what we are looking out for. We have started talking to some people, even if you guys have investors, foreign investors, the Marriott’s of this world and Hilton, this is a gold mine we are sitting on. Remember when Clinton came to Nigeria, he said Nigeria had no problem. He said our wealth is here tapping the floor and when I was in government, I used to tell people that Nigeria has no business being an import-dependent economy. We are blessed with a lot of natural resources. Why should we take food out of this country raw and bring it back processed? So Odu’a is a gold mine.

Are you going to run with the old process?
Let me tell you, the whole gamut that we met on the ground, you will be surprised that they are useful and it is a system. An average Nigerian, when he goes to London, he follows the rules or regulations there. I have traveled with so many Nigerians and we all follow the queue, but once we land in Murtala airport, you will be wondering if this is not the same person that was obedient in London. One of the things I am going to focus on is training. We will spend a lot of money on training our people and those people you call old gamut, we can blend them. I personally will not encourage that old people should be sent packing. We started it last two years and those people we know that cannot fit into the system, will be given opportunities to prove themselves and if they cannot, we will tell them to go. Premier Hotels is a subsidiary of Odu’a group. Wemabod is the one that is giving us about 60 per cent of our income today, because they brought in somebody who now works with the same set of people. We are going to change so many things within the next four years and we will go to individual subsidiaries after giving them a day’s notice. So, it will be difficult for you to do an emergency turnaround and the reason I am giving notice is because I want to meet you in the office.

Do you have any strategic investment in agriculture over the duration of your tenure? Is this an area where we should be expecting more deliberate announcements?
My focus, even as a commissioner, was that for agriculture that would lead to industrialisation, we must be able to grow. I will tell you this, the first ethanol factory in Nigeria, I happen to be one of the people that commissioned it. There is a farm in Ososa and the farm was producing over 250 tonnes per day and they were rotting away. Immediately they started, their production doubled, the farm started smiling to the bank and it created jobs for 15,000 farmers. So, I told SwagCo to take advantage of the opportunities.

There are so many rich men in this country and as they die, their businesses die with them. Our focus is that we want Swagco to become vibrant. So we have given them seed money and we do not need to have 100 per cent of Swagco. They can bring in investors and there are so many private equity firms that are ready to invest and they are working on that. Now, to what the governor said, we will go to each state and look at areas where they have comparative and competitive advantage when it comes to agricultural products. As regards dairy farming, be rest assured that by next week or week after, they are going to Akure to look at it. Swagco is doing very well in Ogun State in terms of cassava, I think they are also doing well in Oyo state. In Osun State, they mine gold and we are going to partner with them towards mining. We are going to take advantage of the commission and ensure that we do the agriculture we are talking about and focus on that, but you cannot achieve a lot in agriculture if you do not have access to infrastructure.

So, now that we have those tips, we will encourage them to do the rural roads where those rural dwellers will be able to bring in those goods and we are trying to see if they can get some funds from the CBN’s anchor borrowers programme, which is cheap funds. I know that they are talking with some banks to get some funds. In the area of agriculture, you need to invest more and get proper infrastructure in place. So, those are the things we are going to focus on and I am happy that our State Governors are now supporting.

All those are farmlands, if we put proper infrastructure, good roads and a proper security infrastructure in place for the so called Amotekun, they are going to tell them to help the farmers so that our people from those areas would not be kidnapped. To the issue of Information Technology (IT), it is the way to go in this world and we are looking at all strategic places and Odu’a has invested so much in IT infrastructure. We are going to put that there but one thing is that despite the fact that we want to encourage the youths in technology, we do not want to encourage them to become online fraudsters.

While you are planning to create new businesses, are you also thinking of revamping the existing ones?
You see people get it wrong because some of these companies do not belong to Odua’s anymore because of some issues. In the case of Epe plywood, one of the generals when they sold it to themselves, the guy just took over it. He did not register the company so it was still in Odua’s name. So, it was just easy and we were able to get it back. We are looking for people that are going to invest and I have spoken to two different people. For us to revamp anything now like someone was asking about government and businesses, government will not be involved because government has no business in business. What they need to do is create the necessary environment. As regards all the companies and revamping them, we are going to revamp them if it is worthwhile and if it is not, we sell them off, because there is no point in investing so much money when you can diversify. We have improved employees’ welfare and our focus is to become world class.

What will you like to be remembered for in the next four years?
Remember I said it out there when the Governors were there that I want all the board members’ names to be written in platinum and not in gold. To say when Bimbo Ashiru was the Chairman, we started producing crude oil and Odu’a has created that environment whereby agriculture has now led to industrialisation; that Odu’a has created a high-tech hub for our youths and all the States in the South-west. We also want people to say that while we were there, this is the amount of jobs we created and these are the things we have left and by the time I leave, I pray that the Airport hotel would have started a joint venture and Premier Hotel by God’s grace in the next few months we would have signed off. I want my name to be written in platinum and for people to say when I was Chairman, Odua’s profits improved drastically and the shareholders were getting billions of naira and not millions. I want people to say I distributed one billion naira which all the six States benefited from. Those are the things for which I want to be remembered.